The best defense of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s instantly notorious “47 percent” remarks at a May fundraiser is that he made a bad point badly.
Romney mixed up three separate groups: the roughly half the country that will inevitably support President Barack Obama, the half that doesn’t pay federal income taxes and the half that receives government benefits. Then he declared them all a collective lost cause. He will never win them over, or convince them to take responsibility for their lives. Next question.
In reality, these are distinct categories. Many Obama supporters are rich. We can be certain the attendees at the president’s fundraiser with Beyonce and Jay-Z in New York City the other day have hefty tax bills. Meanwhile, many of Romney’s supporters — especially the elderly — don’t pay federal income taxes and receive government benefits.
As a political scientist, Romney is an excellent former governor of Massachusetts.
On taxes, he was repeating a conservative talking point about the perils of 47 percent of people not paying federal income taxes. (To be precise, 46.4 percent of “tax units” don’t pay income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center.) Romney took this line of argument and blundered his way through it, although it’s not very convincing in the best rendering.
The contention is that if people aren’t paying federal income taxes, they are essentially freeloaders who will vote themselves more government benefits knowing that they don’t have to pay for them.
As conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, there’s no evidence for this dynamic. It is true that the number of people without a federal-income-tax liability is up; it was just 28 percent in 1950. It is mainly the poor, seniors and lower-income families with children who don’t owe income taxes. The poor lean heavily Democratic, but that’s always been so. Seniors, on the other hand, have been swinging Republican, and there’s no indication that families with children are becoming more liberal.
Many workers who don’t pay federal income tax pay other taxes, including the payroll tax. Just 18 percent of tax filers escape both the income and payroll taxes. People who aren’t paying income tax don’t think of themselves as freeloading “takers.” An April Gallup poll found more discontent with taxes among people making less than $30,000 than any other income group. Fifty percent said they pay too much, though the vast majority has no federal-income-tax liability.
The deeper problem with the “47 percent” argument is that it is right-wing Elizabeth Warrenism. It reflects the belief that federal income taxes are an expression of our togetherness. If you aren’t paying them — or aren’t paying enough — you are a subcitizen.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., says everyone should pay income taxes, even if it’s “the price of two Happy Meals a year, $10.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry has said it’s an “injustice” that more people don’t pay. Warren wants to tax rich people as a statement of our patriotic commitment to one another; some conservatives evidently want to tax the poor and seniors for the same reason.
How does this look in the real world? If a couple earning $35,000 with two kids has no income-tax liability thanks to various exemptions, deductions and credits (the child tax credit has been especially important in removing families from the rolls), how much should we tax them to get them to shape up and fly right? How much do they have to pay the Internal Revenue Service to learn a lesson in basic civics?
This tendency represents a backdoor return to Country Club Republicanism, with the approval of part of the Republican base. Fear of the creation of a class of “takers” can slide into disdain for people who are too poor — or have too many kids or are too old — to pay their damn taxes. For a whiff of how politically unattractive this point of view can be, just look at the Romney fundraising video.
• Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org